Tuesday, January 29, 2013

California Shoots for Marijuana Legalization in 2016

Phillip Smith
Stop The Drug War

If the first day of the California NORML state conference is any indication, most of the major players in Golden State marijuana law reform are lining up behind the idea of waiting until 2016 to try another legalization initiative there. They have some good reasons, but not everybody's happy with that, and some heart-rending reasons why that's the case were also on display as California marijuana activists gathered in San Francisco for day one of the two-day event.

Richard Lee's groundbreaking Proposition 19 garnered 46.5% of the vote in the 2010 off-year election, and no marijuana legalization initiative campaigns managed to make it onto the ballot last year, although several groups tried. Meanwhile, Colorado and Washington beat California to the Promised Land, becoming the first states to legalize marijuana in last November's election.

Now, California activists are eager to make their state the next to legalize, but crafty movement strategists are counseling patience -- and trying to build their forces in the meantime. The Prop 19 campaign made a strong beginning, bringing in elements of organized labor and the black and Hispanic communities, as well as dissident law enforcement voices, to help form a coalition that came close, but didn't quite make it.

As CANORML assistant director Ellen Komp reminded the audience at a Saturday morning panel on what comes next for marijuana law reform, the people behind the Proposition 19 campaign have formed the core of the California Coalition for Cannabis Policy Reform in a bid to forge unity among the state's diverse, multi-sided, and sometimes fractious marijuana community -- and to encourage new voices to join the struggle.


For the Marijuana Policy Project, California is a big prize, but only part of a broader national strategy, and one that should most likely wait for 2016, said the group's executive director, Rob Kampia, as he explained its strategy of pushing legalization bills in state legislatures in four states (Hawaii, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Vermont) this year and beyond, but not pushing legalization initiatives anywhere but Alaska in 2014.

MPP is envisioning a big legalization initiative push in 2016 instead, setting its sights on seven states, including California, when the presidential election pumps up the vote. (The others are Arizona, Massachusetts, Maine, Montana, Nevada, and Oregon.)

"There's a big demographic difference between 2014 and 2016," said Kampia. "If we do 2016, it's ours to lose."

The Drug Policy Alliance, another major player with access to the big-time funding that can turn an initiative into a winner, also seemed to be looking to 2016.

"It's up to us how, where, and when marijuana prohibition will end," said Steve Gutwillig, a DPA deputy executive director and former California state director, "but the presumption is 2016, more than 2014. We need to run a unified campaign, we need to build the base and do alliance-building among people who are already convinced."

Those positions are in line with the thinking of long-time CANORML head Dale Gieringer, who has long argued that initiatives fare better in presidential election years.

Even some of the proponents of the competing initiatives from last year are, while not exactly enthusiastic about waiting for 2016, are seemingly resigned to it.

Steve Collette, who was a proponent of the Regulate Marijuana Like Wine initiative, told the Chronicle he would prefer 2014, but could get behind 2016, too, while Sebastopol attorney Omar Figueroa, coauthor of the Repeal Cannabis Prohibition Act initiative, implied in his remarks in a later panel that he, too, was resigned to waiting for 2016.

Noting the confused state of California's medical marijuana laws -- "Nobody knows what the laws are!" -- Figueroa argued for either legislative action or a 2014 medical marijuana initiative "until a legalization initiative in 2016."

Not everyone was as ready to give up on 2014 just yet. Displeased grumblings were heard in the hallways, and an earnest advocate for the Herer-ite California Cannabis Hemp Initiative 2014 took advantage of a post-panel question-and-answer opportunity to declaim in support of it.

The most powerful and visceral opposition to waiting came in the form of Daisy Bram, a mother of three young children and legal medical marijuana grower. Bram became a symbol of the cruelty of pot prohibition last year, when local authorities in rural Butte County raided her grow, seized her children and place them in foster care, and filed criminal charges against her.

Despite being counseled to comply with the demands of Child Protective Services officials in order to secure the return of her children, one of whom was quite literally torn from her arms, Bram fought back and eventually won the return of children. But just this past week, it happened again. Another raid in another county -- although led by the same investigator -- has resulted in new criminal charges and her children once again being taken by the state.

"My kids need you," she told the hushed crowd. "If it were legal, they wouldn't have my kids."

Daisy Bram doesn't want to wait until 2016 for marijuana to be legalized, she wants it yesterday, and she wants justice, and, most of all, she wants her children back in her arms. Her brief presentation at a panel Saturday afternoon was chilling, impassioned, and powerful, and visibly moved many in the audience.

And while California is a state where just about anyone can get a medical marijuana card and possession of under an ounce is decriminalized, the case of Daisy Bram makes the uncomfortable point that marijuana prohibition continues to exact a real toll on real people, including the innocent. It's not just mothers labeled child abusers because the grow pot; it's also fathers denied visitation, renters thrown out of public housing, workers who must choose between their medicine and their jobs.

It's a bit easier to be sanguine about waiting until 2016 when you're not the one being bitten by those lingering vestiges of prohibition. As Komp put it when introducing Bram, until there is legalization, "there is a lot of human rights work to be done."

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